How to Outline a Novel Step by Step
Welcome, my favorite people! Let’s outline a novel together, shall we?
So you’ve decided to surrender and finally outline a novel. Congratulations! You’ve truly taken a step further from many people that want to write but NEVER FINISH that story. Lack of outlining could actually be some of the main reasons you CAN’T FINISH it or you get a major writer’s block. You can read more in this blog post that I talk about why you might not be able to finish that story you desperately want.
One thing that will help you tremendously will definitely be outlining your story. Outline a novel can be the difference between failing and getting to publication and becoming an author.
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What is outlining in writing? What is the purpose of outlining?
A story outline is basically defining a path that you follow from page one until the last page.
You can outline a novel in a lot of different ways and it doesn’t need to be extremely detailed, but if you know what is going to happen chapter by chapter, it is much easier ‘to see the bigger picture’. You can understand what is the purpose of each chapter, how they connect together and how you are going to create that crazy ending you want so bad.
It basically means creating a structure that you will follow to help you finally finish that book.
If you don’t outline a novel it’s VERY EASY to get lost. A book is very long. You might be relying on sheer imagination and creativity, however, at some point, you will have to create a way to make things start to make sense to your reader.
The lack of structure and outlining is actually a reason why many people fail. They don’t know where they are going, so they can’t finish. Or they might even finish the book, but there will be many parts that are confusing and not well-connected. The reason for that is they didn’t know where to go.
Do I HAVE to outline a novel? Can’t I just write?
I believe that at some point, yes, you’ll have to do it.
Do you have to start BY OUTLINING?
Write in your writing style. If you know that you can’t possibly know the ending if you don’t write until the middle of the book, then don’t start by outlining! You might get stuck!
I feel this way as well when I am staring at the blank outlining sheet. I don’t know these characters, I don’t know this story, how will I decide each chapter?
So I might start to write the actual book, get to know a little my characters, write some scenes with them. I want to discover who they are and how they react. If you have already written something, you might know what I am talking about. The story has a life of its own. It evolves and you might want to go to a place and end up in a whole different one.
HOWEVER, after you’ve really decided what this story will be about, what features it will have, how the characters are, in which world it will be, it might be time for you to create that plot structure. You might already know it in your head, but if you write it down, I guarantee you that it will be much easier to see it. Then you will be able to connect it like a puzzle and it will become more mature and elaborated. Also, you will be able to break it down, edit it, make it bigger, whatever. You will really know what you are doing.
I like the metaphor that when you don’t outline, you are running a REALLY big obstacle marathon (I mean 40.000 words plus big) BLIND. You don’t know what is coming, you might trip, you might fall, you are afraid that you aren’t going to make it. It is simply much, much harder.
But when you do outline it is like if you were in a helicopter, watching everything from above. You see all the obstacles, you see the finishing line and you are ahead of all your competitors because you already know what is coming and you are getting there FAST, while they all have their blindfolds on.
Before you outline, it is like you are in a training mode, you are training for the marathon. When you want to become a professional, you HAVE to know what you are doing. Every big writer has a structure at some point because THEY know what they are doing. The reader might have no idea, they just want to read. However, the writer knows how the mystery will end and how the characters will get there. They outline a novel.
Isadora Who? I still don’t believe you! You are no NY Best-Seller Author!
You might be asking yourself: Isadora Who? You are no NY Best-Seller Author! I don’t believe you! How do you know all these things? Why should I believe you?
Don’t believe me? That’s totally fine! I get it, I get it.
But, then, believe these multiple times best-sellers and amazing authors: Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell, and many, many others.
I took their classes and I learned so much with them!
I always mix my own developed techniques with their teachings here. That’s why I know so much: research + 15 years practice.
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Okay, you have convinced me. But how do I outline a novel? How do you write a novel outline? How do you plan a plot for a novel?
There are a lot of ways to do it. If you search for it online, you will find a lot of different techniques. One that I am very fond of is the snowflake technique and you can read more about it in this article.
Below I will teach you the way that I do it, chapter by chapter, and you will be able to download the sheet that I use to create it.
However, when you advance as a writer, you might change it, create your own method, see what it works and what it doesn’t work for you.
1- Phase pre-outlining
This is the phase we talked about before. It is when you are deciding all the basic settings: how the characters will be, what is the feeling of the story, what they will be doing, in which world it is, and everything else. You can write some scenes, you can spend some time in your story world’s, talking with your characters (I mean it, one of the inspiration techniques I find interesting is to pretend that you are in a bar with your characters. Write it down, everything that they say, give them details and unique voices).
If you still have no idea about how to create this part you can read about character creation in this article where I teach how to create amazing characters without wasting time in things like archetypes and clichés. Or you can read a step by step guide here on how to start your novel.
2- Basics of outline a novel
You can download the sheet that we will be using here. You can use it as a template to outline a novel.
If you want a place where you can write everything about your story, I also use a PowerPoint planner, and you can download it here. It will be a place where you can plan out your entire story, write about your characters, your world, and everything else. It will also be used in the next outlining section, so get yours and start to outline a novel.
Okay, did you get your story outlining sheet?
It will look something like this:
Story Outlining Sheet: Downloadable Novel Outline Worksheet, finally outline a novel!
This is made for a 3 part structure, which I like to use. However, you can make it your own. You can divide it into 5 parts. You can have one part only because you are the one that controls your story. I DON’T BELIEVE IN THAT MYTH ‘ONE FITS ALL’. Please. One day I’ve read that ‘every story is a three-part story’. I beg to disagree.
You can see that I also defined the number of words I will want to write in each chapter. If you are creating a schedule, you might want to consider this. If you want to write a book in no time at all, like one month, you can use the number of words defined above: 21 days, 2000 words per day and the rest of the month for you to edit it.
Consider your schedule to do it. If you want to write a 100.000 word book and you want to make each chapter 5.000 words long, how many days will it take for you to create one chapter? Or maybe you want to make a 70.000 book, with 70 small chapters. How will they come together?
However, you don’t need to define a schedule. This is an outlining article.
Summarize the chapters and Purpose part:
Here you’ll want to summarize briefly what each chapter will contain. I also like to write the purpose of each chapter, so I don’t get lost. Everything you write has to have the purpose of pushing the story forward. If you want to write a scene that has nothing to do with the plot, but you find it funny, why don’t you save it for a spin-off or for expanding your story in other media, like your own blog, or on Wattpad? This is actually part of my strategy.
If you want to write something that doesn’t fit your outlining plan, I say write it! Just for fun! It can become a chapter someday, it can become a second book, or a spin-off like I’ve just said.
This is about writing details about that chapter for you to remember later. For example, you must remember that in chapter 13, your character has a broken arm, this means that he or she won’t be able to hold a sword. It won’t make a lot of sense if they break their arm on chapter 12 and you forget about it and writes the chapter 13 with they fighting like a samurai again.
There you have it.
This will help you A LOT. Could you find any contradictions in your book by now? I know that I find a lot. I see that one chapter that I wanted to write might not fit in the storyline or maybe that I will have to add a chapter to create tension before the climax.
3- Core outlining
This part can be a little overwhelming and I tell you to create it only if you already know your story very well.
Maybe it is a good idea to really explore your story first and then come back. Also, don’t try to finish it all before you start writing, otherwise you can fall into the tales of perfectionism and NEVER even start to write. You can become so frustrated that you actually give up on writing and, also, remember that I told you that stories have real lives? What you define here can change while you are writing the book.
However, if you do make it until the end at some point, you can be sure that you will finish the story (or almost sure, because you might not be writing the right topic, which prevents you from finishing, and I explained about it in this article).
You will finish it because this is basically your book in a short format.
For that, you will need the PowerPoint planner that I talked about for this, because it will be where you will define everything. And you can get it here.
This part is basically getting the summary and expanding it by writing everything about that scene in a list of topics.
You will pay attention to the following in each scene: Ambience General, Ambience Details, Characters, Smells, Feelings, Thoughts. This is for the scene as a whole, but you can specify it moment by moment if you want.
For example, in my book:
Chapter one summary:
A brief summary of the chapter (outline basics): Lyon will be fighting with Sky. This is to show the readers that they are two normal teenagers, but they love to fight. Create curiosity. Then, they will go to a strange class where all the students are different than regular people. The readers will get to know what they are, what are Gaëths and Wexton School will be mentioned. Lyon will lose control and destroy part of the room. This is for the readers to see how he can’t control himself.
Core outlining: story outline example
1- Lyon and Sky fighting behind the school gym. The readers have to find it strange for two teenagers to be fighting and liking it. Sky will defeat Lyon;
2- Sky will tell them to go to class. Lyon will say that he doesn’t want to go. Sky will tell him that they have to go because their mother gets really sad when they don’t. This will hint at their mother’s depression and it will make it clear that they are siblings.
3- Change of scene. They are at their dinner table getting a particular class with an old lady, Roselita (describe her). They have other students with them. This is an opportunity to explain how few Gaëths there are in the world. Also, describe their dining room and show that they are rich (don’t tell it, show with the objects);
4- Roselita will ask about main concepts of the story, like what being a Gaëth means, what is Maëy, and everything else. This has to be in a way that it doesn’t scream at people’s face the concepts. Sky will answer everything based on a book they are studying.
5- They mention Wexton School, this is core.
6- Lyon gets really angry because he doesn’t want to go to that school. Create tension here…
Ambiance General: Mainly, dinner room, Lyon and Sky’s home.
Ambiance Details: posh, a lot of glass stuff, because they will break it at the end.
Characters: Lyon, Sky, Roselita, the other two students (Connor and Brad, secondary).
Smells: Dinner being made.
Feelings: Lyon is excited by the fight, bored by the class, scared about the possibility to go to Wexton.
I hope you got the gist of it, it was a story outline example so you really understand how to outline a novel. You can see that this is a lengthy process, that’s why you shouldn’t do it all at once. This is something you will construct with your story. Maybe do it before each chapter or when you are stuck (you actually can read about writer’s block in this article). You don’t need to fill everything, but this can really help you to put details in the scene. In ‘Ambience Details’ you can talk about all the objects that will appear in the room and in ‘smells’ you can really add details.
It’s all about the details! Both in the characters and in the scenes.
And that’s it! Congratulations! You did it!
Remember, don’t do it all in one sitting, however, once you’ve done at least the basics of outlining, you definitely will be able to finish this story. Good luck and tell me in the comments if you’ve found this helpful.
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